Facebook Twitter

Portrait of a magazine

A century of National Geographic photos are on display at the Natural History museum

SHARE Portrait of a magazine

For anyone who has ever picked up a National Geographic magazine and been awed by the spectacular photography, "In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits," on display at the Utah Museum of Natural History through Sept. 23, is for you . . . and everyone else, for that matter.

"This is the kind of exhibit that will resonate with people of all ages," said Becky Menlove, director of exhibits at the UMNH.

The exhibit is a rare collection of 56 framed color and black-and-white portraits taken from the magazine's inception in the early 1900s to today.

"All were taken," reads the exhibit's essay, "to discover and depict the world's unknown places and populations, the National Geographic's original mission. Alone, they are faces of our past. Some famous, all timeless."

The exhibit is broken down into five segments:

"The Strange & the Exotic," before 1930

"Away From Depression & War," the 1930s and 1940s

"Cheerful Kodachrome Days," the 1950s and 1960s

"Back to Realism," the 1970s and 1980s

"Photography & Ambiguity," 1990s to the present

"If the photographer's skills and sensitivity are high enough, the portrait will reveal the spirit and essence of the individual," writes National Geographic associate editor Chris Johns in the foreword of the book that accompanies the exhibit.

Photo gallery

Several of the photographs in the exhibit have achieved a popular status of their own and will be immediately recognized. Robb Kendrick's 2003 tintype of a rancher's daughter in Elko, Nev., and Steve McCurry's 1985 portrait of Sharbat Gulu, a young Afghan girl with haunting green eyes.

Many of the magazine's early portraits were designed to expand scientific and geographical knowledge by documenting distant cultures. The exhibit displays some of the bulky cameras used during this period.

When smaller, lightweight cameras appeared, the portraits became more informal, the poses unplanned and more candid.

The portraits from the '30s and '40s were an attempt to take readers away from their economic concerns and the gritty reality of war. Because of newer technology in both cameras and film, the photographers focused on happy, reassuring images depicting mankind in positive situations.

Images from the '50s and '60s appear almost kitschy today — kitschy yet cool. With the rise of the middle class and the spread of consumerism, photographers captured people at their energetic best, again using the newest color film: Kodachrome. Luis Marden's 1952 color photograph, "Lobsterettes," demonstrates best how the magazine pushed its agenda.

But in the "Back to Realism" segment, we see how the photographers of the '70s and '80s rejected the perky, artificial smiles and the overly bright colors of the post-World War II era. The portraits here are everyday faces, not just the exotic. Again, with better cameras and faster-speed films, the serendipity of these images put a different face on the world.

The more contemporary photographs in the exhibit are perhaps not as socially compelling for those of us who have become visually jaded; we see so much good photography today. Nevertheless, these images round out the exhibit.

Several of the magazine's photographers were asked to write essays for the exhibit's "In Focus" companion book. William Albert Allard, a National Geographic photographer for more than 40 years, and who has several works in the show, wrote: "A fine portrait has the potential to tell something about the spirit of the subject that can be sensed by someone half a world and a different language away."

This is what National Geographic did and does best, and this exhibit, through these portraits, makes it clear once again.

If you go

What: In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits

Where: Utah Museum of Natural History, 1390 E. Presidents Circle,

University of Utah

When: Through Sept. 23

Museum hours: Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Hours extended on the first Monday (Free Admission Day), 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

How much: Adults, $6.00; Children 3-12, $3.50;

Children under 3, free; Senior citizens, $3.50;

museum members, free

Phone: 581-6927

Web: www.umnh.utah.edu

Also: Call about group tours

E-mail: gag@desnews.com